Harper Lee letters - in which author complains about invasion of her privacy - to be put up for auction
During her lifetime, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee was famously protective of her privacy – her last interview with a journalist took place in 1964.
But now, only six weeks after Lee’s death at the age of 89, 29 letters by the author – some of which discuss intimate details of her health and day to day to life – are to be auctioned in America.
The letters in question, whose content is described in detail on the website of the auction house Nate D Saunders, were written by Lee to her friends Doris and Bill Leapard and to Don Salter, an admirer of her work.
In one short note to Salter, Lee apologises for not being able to reply more fully, writing: ''I have had a stroke and cannot answer mail. Thanks anyway! Harper Lee'', while in another, written in 2006, she alludes to her ongoing macular degeneration – “drat it, can’t see”.
A 1993 letter reveals – with some irony, given the context – how much she hated being ogled by visitors to her home town of Monroeville, Alabama, during the Thanksgiving holiday season.
“There has evolved a new holiday sport in Monroeville, that of people bringing their visiting relatives to look at me,” she wrote. “There is so little in the way of entertainment, looking at Harper Lee is something to do. Thanksgiving weekend was such hell that it got on Alice's [Lee’s older sister Alice Finch Lee] nerves as well – they came in VANS.”
On a lighter note, a 1990 letter to Doris Leapard tells how the author was overcome by a giggling fit at a dinner party.
"I could not face my hostess without grinning, and found myself laughing through the evening for no apparent reason,” she wrote. “It is hard to produce an appropriate funny story to explain sudden seizures of irrelevant giggling, especially when the conversation is about Euripidean drama.”
To anyone interested in Lee’s thoughts on her own writing and its historical context, meanwhile, perhaps one of the most interesting letters is dated August 25 1990.
In it, the author discusses how: “one of the hardest things in the world (and especially in the case of Southerners) is to produce, in the midst of social revolution, work of lasting worth which reflects the revolution”.
She then goes on to praise the comparatively little-known novelist Elise Sanguinetti, a classmate of Lee’s at the University of Alabama, who died in 1990.
Sanguinetti, who also worked as a reporter on her local paper The Anniston Star (which was owned by her father) published four novels – The Last of the Whitfields (1962), The New Girl (1964), The Dowager (1968) and McBee's Station (1971) – all of which were inspired by her experiences of the Deep South and its class system.
“Like Jane Austen and [American novelist] Eudora Welty, she [Sanguinetti] never left home, and like them she can see the whole world within a radius of eight miles,” Lee wrote. “What is more, her settings are contemporary, or as contemporary as our future-shock culture can enable them to be...Elise is as funny as hell, she has a laser-beam eye, and her ear for Alabama speech amounts to perfect pitch.”
Some of the letters in question, including the examples above, were first offered for auction in 2013 when Lee was living in an assisted-living facility Monroeville but were never sold.
In recent years, other examples of the author’s correspondence have been put up for auction. In 2014 for instance, a 2005 letter by the author to a correspondent named Dr Engelhardt – in which again she railed against Monroeville’s “Harper Lee tourist industry” – was offered as a lot at a Nate D Saunders auction.
And in 2015, Christie’s handled the auction of six letters by the author to the architect Harold Caufield, written in the Fifties and Sixties. The correspondence was expected to sell for up to £163,000 – but, in the event, the letters failed to attract a buyer.
Lee’s second novel Go Set a Watchman – initially described as a “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird, although most reviewers have since pointed out that it’s in fact more of an early draft – was published in 2015, after a manuscript was discovered by Lee's lawyer Tonja Carter.
Nate D Saunders, which is based in Los Angeles, specialise sin celebrity memorabilia and autographs. Its online catalogue for the latest auction features everything from “John Steinbeck’s personally owned, custom-made velvet tuxedo”, to Village People’s 1978 American Music award for Best Disco Group, to a black Dolce and Gabanna jacket worn by Alicia Keys during her 2008 As I Am tour.
Bidding for each of the Harper Lee letters, which are being sold as separate lots, begins at $750 each. The auction is due to take place on March 30